According to new research, older people rely on schematic memory, which may have troubling consequences. More specifically, this study “Differentiating True and False Schematic Memories in Older Adults,” says that as people age, they typically rely on schematic memory, which helps them remember the basics of an event—however, because they don’t remember specific details, they may have a more difficult time differentiating a true memory from a false memory.

Nancy Dennis, Associate Professor of Psychology, explained how the reliance on schematic memory might affect an individual: “If your spouse asks you to go to the grocery store to get milk, eggs, and bread, but you go to the store and pick up orange juice, tomatoes, and cereals, you may have had a false memory.” She goes on to say that it’s important we understand various forms of memory issues, as opposed to focusing solely on memory loss.

Schematic memory isn’t all bad—it helps us to organize a massive influx of information we might otherwise mix up or forget entirely. However, relying too much on schematic memory does come with negative consequences for older adults, as doing so might prompt false memories and cause these individuals to mistake them for true memories. According to these researchers, our brains age differently just as our bodies do, and so individual differences in brain aging may play an important role here.

To reach these findings, the researchers used MRI technology (magnetic resonance imaging) to measure and analyze brain activity in a group of older adults who volunteered for the study. These 20 individuals, who had a mean age of 75, were tasked with studying pictures of common scenes—such as a beach scene—for about 10 seconds and remembering as much as possible. Later, their memory was tested: they were shown pictures of objects featured in the pictures as well as objects that weren’t in the picture and were asked to identify the former.

“Just grouping people by age in our lab hasn’t worked out, in terms of saying, this is where older adults differ from younger adults. But, what we have seen consistently is that when we look at brain activity during memory retrieval, we see increasing activity in the middle or superior temporal gyrus, which tracks increases in false memories.” She goes on to say that this suggests older adults who experience a plethora of false memories experience more activity in this region. Furthermore, other studies have identified a link between this region and semantic or gist processing.

Dennis concludes that there is a need for further research into changes in the hippocampus as well as how one might decrease the amount of false memories; however, it is apparent that these changes do indeed occur as we grow older: “The fact that much of this activity shifts to a different sub-region of the hippocampus—from anterior to posterior—does suggest that there are processing differences that are taking place as you age. While we don’t know exactly why this shift is happening, it’s something we need to further investigate.”

Penn State (2018, March 21). Forgetting Details But Getting the Gist May Prompt False Memories in Older Adults. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved March 21, 2018 from

Webb, C. E., & Dennis, N. A. (2018, February 6). Differentiating True and False Schematic Memories in Older Adults. Retrieved March 26, 2018 from